Pete Docter remembered me – or at least my Route 66 pin.
I have a whole collection of them, shiny metal lapel pins I’ve gathered over the years. Last Friday I almost wore my 1960’s, Star Trek-ish NASA pin, but at the last minute switched to a favorite, one in the shape of a Route 66 road sign and headed out to meet director Docter to talk about his work on Pixar’s latest instant classic, Up.
Our rendezvous was in the plush Star Lounge in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, just across the street from Central Park and up the block from the Plaza Hotel where Cary Grant was kidnapped by two of James Mason’s evil minions and spirited off to Long Island.
Fortunately no such fate befell me. Instead, Pete arrived and our chat (part of the promotion for Up’s blu-ray/DVD release) began. I started by mentioning I’d last seen him way early in the year at Disney’s New York screening room, when he and Up producer Jonas Rivera were in town to present the film’s top (or if you will, upper) half. “And you were wearing the Route 66 pin,” Pete said without a pause. “A different jacket, but I remember the pin.”
When you’re in charge of a $175 million film, you develop an eye for details.
A title like Up lends itself to no end of puns, both deliberate and unconscious. “Up was a tricky project to get off the ground,” Docter began without a hint of irony or wink of an eye. Eight years had gone by since Monsters Inc., his first Pixar film as a director was released, the most recent five of them spent on the new film. “Before that I spent maybe a half year doing some writing on Wall-E, a year or so on ‘Rat’ [studio shorthand for Ratatouille] and a little time on [Miyazaki’s] Howl’s Moving Castle, [supervising] the U.S. dub of that.
“There were some projects that didn’t go – I hesitate to mention too much in case we come back to any of them at some point. We generally develop two or three ideas at a time to see what bubbles to the surface; sometimes one idea informs another, back and forth,” a process that spawned loveable canine Dug, who made the leap from one of the also-rans to Up.
One of the not-so-secrets of Pixar’s success is their obsessive drive not just to make every film visually breathtaking to the last detail, but to make sure every story beat is honed to perfection. Shortly after Cars’ 2006 release, John Ratzenberger (whose voice has shown up in every Pixar feature, from Toy Story’s Hamm to a construction worker in Up) pointed out that the studio “will spend years developing a story, then when they get the script just right, they’ll tear it down and start over to make sure it’s perfect.”
Docter illustrates Ratzenberger’s point: “We [story]boarded about eight movies’ worth of material, which is typical. Some of it came together very quickly: the scene where Carl first lifts his house up and over the city – that was the first sequence we boarded. In the movie it’s almost shot by shot what we had on the boards – if only the rest of the movie went that smoothly. Other sequences, like Carl and Russell meeting Muntz in his cave –we reboarded that no fewer than 50 times.”
When do Docter and the Pixar ‘brain trust’ (head honchos like John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton and others who get together to screen works in progress) know they’ve gotten it right? “A lot of it is a gut level intuitive feel for whether it’s landing or not,” says Docter in what could be another unconscious pun, “whether it’s impactful, emotional, funny or whatever it’s supposed to be. Sometimes we don’t have any time [left] and we make it as good as we can. If we had more time I would’ve continued to work it but I’m happy with way it turned out.”
I ask Docter a CGI question that’s puzzled me for a while, based on a theory of mine that may have absolutely no validity: “An animator at Blue Sky said he could tell who animated a scene just by looking at it. You can tell a lot about someone’s personality from their handwriting, and since a 2D animator’s work comes out of the same hand maybe that personality carries over into their art.
“But CGI animation doesn’t come out of the wrist, it’s based on manipulating a wire-frame representation of the character on a computer monitor; how does the animator’s personality or style show through?” (I may not have phrased my question quite that elegantly, but you get the idea.)
It’s a topic Docter has thought about himself. “It’s really cool you bring that up. The first CG stuff I did at Pixar was a Listerine commercial. John [Lasseter] was directing and we each did half the scenes. A friend from CalArts picked out all my scenes just by watching the movements – he could tell what was mine. There must be a ‘handwriting’ that way as well, through the movement, which makes sense. We’re trying to caricature through movement the same way Al Hirschfeld will caricature a person’s appearance through line.
“I can tell Doug Sweetland’s scenes. He didn’t animate on Up, but one of his best scenes, one of his most famous is in Toy Story 2 when Woody is pretending to be a John Wayne type of guy” – Doctor breaks into a Wayne-style drawl – “‘Howdy little missy, notice any – trouble around here?’ it’s just great animation, it’s so Doug.”
Can Docter put finger on it, or is it just some ineffable… thing? “In terms of my work on the Listerine commercial I think it had to do with the bounciness and timing; John’s was more subtle, mine was more extreme. With Doug, he just has very specific, unique expressions that only he does. Similarly, he’s got a fluid, loose ability. He’s young enough, he’d been to CalArts for one year then got into Pixar. He was still in a learning phase so it’s like an extension of his arm. A lot of us have to struggle a little more to get what we want, it seems like it just comes right out of him.”
And it all comes from moving little sliders around as opposed to someone sitting down and –
“Drawing? Yeah, it’s a lot more like say, stop motion. You have a puppet and you can pose it anyway you want. We call them ‘articulated variables,’ the different controls – and there’s thousands of them in any given character. I was talking to some of the stop motion guys on James and the Giant Peach, they claim they can recognize each other’s work too – it’s the same idea.”
I tell Pete I once heard a Disney 2D animator describe CGI as a form of puppetry rather than actual animation. “I see their point, but it’s still created frame by frame – it’s very much animation: you’re posing it, you’re controlling every single point not only in space but in time, whereas puppetry is all live.
“But it is like moving a thing around as opposed to drawing each frame. When we were doing Toy Story we had a bunch of animators who’d never used computers before, it was so new at the time. Most of the guys who picked it up the quickest were from stop motion. In the end the hand-drawn guys did just as good work if not better, but it took them a little while longer to get their brain around how it’s all supposed to go down.
“I remember for myself, it was always frustrating: ‘if I were drawing this I’d be done by now!’ It’s a totally different way of thinking – from the root out to the extremities, in layers, as opposed to one pose here and another pose there, then the inbetweens. It’s a very different way of thinking.”
Docter’s own roots are in 2D, working for Disney on an Epcot educational film during a summer break from CalArts. After graduation “I worked at several other companies doing 2D animation. I started at Pixar in 1990 on the computer and pretty much exclusively [on them] since then.
If he had the opportunity, would he return to 2D? “Oh yeah, every Christmas I do a little flipbook so I still get my fingers dirty.” A flipbook? What about an entire feature? “Oh definitely – I’d be very interested. I keep thinking about – I have ideas, but – we’ll we see what happens.”